This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Advocates of the Washington State History Museum are making a compelling case against Gov. Chris Gregoire’s new proposal to mothball the building.
The Legislature has preserved the museum, as an institution, through worse times than these. Lawmakers have kept it open through two world wars and the Great Depression. The reason: History is important.
It’s important to tell the state’s story to adults and critical to pass it on to the young.
The economics of shutting it down make no sense, even in a year when lawmakers must severely pare back many state programs.
Neither Gregoire nor anyone else is suggesting that the graceful, arched building on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma be left derelict. Even her budget would provide enough money – $1 million a year – to protect it from damage, decay and vandalism.
The additional cost needed to keep it operating over the next biennium would actually be less than that. Museum officials say the building could remain open – on a scaled-back basis – to schoolchildren and other visitors for $800,000 or $900,000 a year.
In light of the cost vs. the benefit, or rather the cost vs. the loss, closure would be indefensible. To save roughly $71,000 a month, the state would turn off the lights at a $40.8 million institution.
For Tacoma, there’s far more at stake than state heritage and a great architectural landmark. Closure of the museum would hurt the city’s economy – read, jobs – and threaten a critical part of the city.
The museum opened in 1996 as part of the transformation of the south end of downtown from a haunted house to a major West Coast attraction. Along with the new University of Washington Tacoma campus across the street, it formed the foundation of a cultural district that now also includes the Tacoma Art Museum, the Museum of Glass and the LeMay Car Museum, which is now under construction.
To shutter the museum would threaten that synergy and kick one of the pillars out from beneath Tacoma’s hard-fought revival. It would also break faith with the private donors who contributed $7 million to the building’s construction.
The only serious argument for closure is that it would free up a little money for the critical social safety net programs that are also threatened by the state’s fiscal emergency. The key word here is “little.”
The $900,000 a year or less needed to keep the museum alive wouldn’t spare social welfare programs that cost hundreds of millions a year. In any case, it might be diverted from funding now earmarked for the $114 million Heritage Center planned for Olympia. That unbuilt project could be deferred a few years for the sake of saving an existing and invaluable institution.
The Legislature will be forced to make penny-wise, pound-foolish decision to balance the budget. But this would be a case of penny-wise, $40.8 million foolish.
If the legislatures of the 1930s found a way to keep the museum open through the Great Depression, the 2010 Legislature can certainly find a way to do it now.